Sublimimal messages

As I was reading Henning Mankell’s The dogs of Riga in January, I never guessed for a minute that I would end up in the city a scarce three months later. I’ve always known I was gullible. I’m every advertisers dream. I go into a store for milk and come away with every product I’ve seen advertised that week. Which is why I don’t have a TV. Am way too impressionable.

IMG_3531 (800x600)What I knew about Riga last week could have been written on an ink-repellant beer mat. Okay, I knew it was the capital of Latvia, but that’s it. I didn’t know, for instance, that the Old Town is listed with UNESCO as a world heritage site. Or that it’s the biggest city in the Baltic States (in fact, I’m not sure I could name the Baltic states!). I had some vague notion that it will be European Capital of Culture in 2014 but didn’t know that it is the only city in Europe where five religious churches are located. I also didn’t know it was the cleanest capital in Europe in 2007 and I wonder how they worked that one out…

Sun Stone building on the left; Vansu bridge, right.

Sun Stone building on the left; Vansu bridge, right.

The Sun Stone building is the tallest in Riga and the second-highest in the Baltics (122.78 metres)  and the first of its kind to be built after the Russians left. Located on the west bank of the Daugava river, it’s known locally as Saules akmens or  Swedbank’s Central Office.  The Cable bridge (Vanšu tilts) is 595 meters long and was built during the Soviet era and originally named Gorky Bridge (Gorkija tilts) after the man himself  Maxim Gorky.

Latvian TV skyscraper

Latvian TV skyscraper

The TV skyscraper is a mere 22-storey construct, built on the island of Zakusala. It reminds me a little of the Needle in Dublin – even if it looks nothing like it.

Library (left), stone bridge, and Central market (right)

Library (left), railway bridge, and Central market (right)

The National Library of Latvia (NLL) is home to 4.1 million books in 50 languages. I could get lost in there. I’m not at all sure though whether I like the building. It only opened to the public this year and what I find most remarkable is that back in 1999 almost all 170 UNESCO member states adopted a resolution to ensure all possible support for the implementation of the NLL project. What registers on people’s order of importance in the grand scheme of things is truly subjective.

Up until the eighteenth century, a common pronouncement heard in Riga was ‘as impossible as a bridge over Daugava’. The Swedes put paid to this, though, when in 1701, they constructed the first floating bridge that connected Vecriga with Pardaugava. This was replaced by a pontoon bridge and in 1872 and 1914, two more bridges were built, including the Iron Bridge which was destroyed in WWII. The Daugava River in Riga now has five bridges: the Railway bridge (Dzelzceļa tilts); the Stone bridge (Akmens tilts); the Cable Bridge (Vanšu tilts); Salu Bridge (Salu tilts); and the Southern Bridge (Dienvidu tilts).
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These photos were taken from the seventeenth floor of the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a 21-storey building thought to be the first skyscraper in Latvia. It took ten years to build (1951-1961) and strangely enough was built on the site of a Lutheran cemetery and church. I’m superstitious … I’d have trouble working there, magnificent and all though the building  is.
Interestingly, when I Googled it, I came across a page listing the mind-boggling achievements of science in Latvia that doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2007. I wonder if there’s a message in that? And speaking of science … apparently some doctors in Riga have opened a restaurant called Hospitalis where the dining room looks like an operating room and the waitresses wear nurse’s uniforms.  There are syringes and operating tools for cutlery as well as test tube and beakers for wine glasses. A skip or a must-see?

The hedgehog in the fog

I don’t think I’ve been this far north in Europe before. Yes, I’ve dipped my toes in the Arctic Ocean but that was in Alaska. The furthest north I’ve been until today was Lithuania. Now I’m in Latvia. In Riga. We left behind a steaming 28+ degrees in Budapest and landed in a rather balmier 10 degrees this evening – but I’m not complaining. I’m already dreading the summer in BP.

About 30 minutes out of Riga, the ground beneath us was partially frozen. It looked a lot like tundra, with a few houses pitted here and there. As we got closer to the city, there were trees, and more trees, and more trees. Most peculiar. Add this to the towering concrete blocks, the expansive harbour, and the fishing boats and trawlers bobbing the bay and you’d have little trouble conjuring up Kurt Wallander and his Dogs of Riga.

Our apartment is smack in the middle of the old town looking out over the river but this evening, tourists were scarce enough and it would seem that the locals give it a wide berth. We did pass some interesting-looking Russian-type enclaves on the way in from the airport but when we asked our driver where we were, we were told it wasn’t a place that tourists wanted to see. When we asked about a flea market, we were told that it wasn’t a place tourists could safely go. And when I asked about the concentration camp, they’d never heard of it. The next few days should be interesting. In the old town, at 8pm, there was little sign of any action with waiters in near-empty restaurants dancing attendance on a couple of diners – no more.

IMG_3422 (776x800)We had spotted Ezítis Miglá at the beginning of our first quick look-see and on the way home took our appetites inside. It literally translates to the hedgehog in the fog, a Soviet-era cartoon character. Cosmopolitan? Would that be the word I’d use? Or has Budapest spoiled me and what came to mind was an upholstered version of Szimpla Kert on a smaller scale. What distinguished it though was the orderly queue at the bar where you order what you want, pay the bill, take your drinks, and then sit and wait for your food. The wait staff were there to deliver food and bus tables. Nothing more. It’s quite the system and the queue moves quickly.

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IMG_3407 (600x800)From my shameless bout of people watching (quite a young studenty crowd mixed with some young professional types armed with smart phones, iPads, and laptops, all together yet all apart) it would seem a popular spot with some great 80s music on the turntable. The menu didn’t seem to know what part of the world it was in with a mix of pasta, tortillas, and the Russian/Ukranian solyanka. I was in hog heaven. I ate solyanka for a week once and never got sick of it. What we didn’t realise though is that the portions this far north are huge. They obviously have long, cold winters in mind and with 10 degrees outside, spring hasn’t quite arrived. And, thankfully, while the women I’ve seen so far are rather lovely, a sizeable proportion of them are in the double digits size-wise. Comforting to see.

With eyes biIMG_3421 (800x600)gger than our bellies, we had also ordered the Mexican platter. About the only thing remotely Mexican about it was the tortilla chips. Gives taking culinary license a whole new meaning. But at least we left with the makings of a good omelet for the morning. A full ten out of ten to the staff who were pleasant, helpful, and seemed to really enjoy what they’re doing. I’m already giving thanks that we have what has the makings of a ‘local’ practically on our doorstep. Sometimes, things do go according to plan.

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